Who doesn't know people who, in the very literal sense of the phrase, easily get uneasy, who are quickly disturbed by everything about and in their environment, who are emotionally „thin-skinned“ and vulnerable, who immediately take critical remarks personally – who, in simple terms are hypersensitive? The truth about their nature is: they have an amazing eye for details and nuances as well as a fine sense for people and situations.
They are able to easily read thoughts and identify opportunities and risks.
Do you recognize a friend in the above description? A family member? Your partner? Yourself?
Lack of understanding for highly-sensitive people
Typical phrases that highly sensitive people get are: "You are oversensitive", "You are so difficult", "You make it complicated". And then “the well-meant“ advice: "Just do not listen!", “Do not pay attention“, "Get used to remarks!", "Do not take everything so personally!".
They feel somehow wrong and like outsiders, tend to be full of self-doubt and not at ease with themselves.
Aren't we all a bit sensitive?
Let's talk about sensitivity. The term is used for both mental and physical sensibility. The physical sensibility - or irritability – is fundamental property for everyday life and existence, and is realized through the nervous system. It enables a living being to adapt to his environment, ward off dangers, and strive for the useful things. Simply explained: the nervous system absorbs information about the environment and the body, processes it and initiates appropriate reactions. Of course, all people have sensitivity.
The difference is only in the degree of general sensitivity. Highly sensitive people have a strong sensitivity due to the constitution of their nervous system. The phenomenon that a minority of the population is oversensitive has always existed - and has proven in evolution. But it was at the end of the last millennium that it got its appropriate name.
The phenomenon gets its name
Dr. Elaine Aron, a psychology professor and psychotherapist from the US, has been dealing with high sensitivity since the early 1990s, doing self-research and evaluating existing studies to high reactivity (Jerome Kagan) and noise sensitivity (Ivan Pavlov). In an effort to find a neutral term for this personality trait, she coined the term "High Sensitivity“ and published on the subject (along with her husband Arthur Aron) both scientific papers and popular books. Her first book "The Highly Sensitive Person" appeared in 1996. Elaine Aron's books can be regarded as fundamental in this field.
Highly sensitive persons have highly increased perception of stimuli around them
According to Aron's findings, sensitivity is a personality trait that affects 15-20 percent of people, both men and women. Her brief definition states that a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) has a sensitive nervous system, can sense subtleties in his/her environment that other people don't, and is more easily overwhelmed by a highly stimulating environment. The easily excitable nervous system causes an extensive and nuanced perception, a complex information processing as well as an intense feeling and a long reverberation of the impressions. Due to their greater sensitivity to irritation, the highly sensitive also perceive minor and subliminal stimuli. While in the non-highly sensitive people certain stimuli (for example, quiet radio music or conversations in the background) are only consciously perceived at the beginning and then largely fade out, the highly sensitive people are far less able to ignore these interference factors which are classified as unimportant. This makes it clear how difficult for them it is to concentrate in unfavorable environmental conditions.
The realization offers a great “aha experience“
If highly sensitive people find out that their conspicuously high sensitivity is a normal variant in the constitution of the nervous system and not a disease, a disorder or an anomaly, this is usually a great relief for them. They can now re-classify and evaluate their experiences and gain a new self-image.
Lots of individual characteristics combine to make a plausible overall phenomenon, making it much more manageable. Usage of terms such as “High Sensitivity“ instead of hypersensitivity, “ greater perception“ rather than “perceptual disorder“ - makes a big difference.
Anyone who realizes this potential and appreciates it, will be able to give up on the - unsuccessful - attempt to become a "pachyderm" (or “thick-skinned“). Self-acceptance and self-care are the keywords here. From then on, it can be a question of shaping life in accordance with the trait of high sensitivity, of dealing with limitations and burdens as confidently as possible, and of living out qualifications and talents.
Everybody wants to be accepted
High sensitivity is often confused with shyness, inhibition and timidity, or even a social phobia. It was a big concern for Elaine Aron to make it clear that these attributions are mostly irrelevant. Observing, prudent and careful, highly sensitive people comprehend the actual situation much better. If shyness is actually present, then it is as with other humans an acquired behavior. Behind this is the fear of making mistakes, of embarrassing oneself, of not living up to expectations and being rejected In an environment in which they feel comfortable, in communion with people who make them feel valued, even highly introverted individuals are open-minded, friendly and sociable. It should be added at this point how important for the highly sensitive is an attentive, respectful and appreciative communication.
Every human being is unique and multifaceted
In order to prevent a drawer thinking, it is important to emphasize that nobody should be easily and downroght reduced to the high sensitivity.
Despite all things they have in common, there are also big differences among the highly sensitive. It starts with the fact that there are extroverts and introverts among them (according to Aron, about 70 percent are introverted). Some have above-average cognitive intelligence, but not every high-sensitive person is highly gifted according to the classic definition (IQ greater than or equal to 130).
Not all highly sensitives are cautious and careful
Some highly sensitive persons can be found in the current description of high sensitivity only to some extent, because they do not consistently prefer a low-stimulus environment. Sometimes highly sensitive people even have a personality trait that psychologists call "sensation seeking" (also known as "high sensation seeking", abbreviated HSS). Sensation Seeking is described as a behaviour characterized by an urge for adventure and variety as well as the pursuit of new impressions followed by sometimes even risky actions. For these people (HSP + HSS), the challenge is to let their sensitive as well as their adventurous side come to fruition and to find their optimal level of excitement on the fine line between boredom and overburdening.
Highly sensitive people need longer recovery periods
Even without the afore-mentioned peculiarity of sensation seeking, it is an evelasting task for the highly sensitive to ensure that they are largely in their comfort zone with respect to the amount and intensity of the incoming stimuli. Compared to non-highly sensitive people, the area where they feel quite well is lower and narrower. They need their breaks and recovery periods, and they always need time alone to find themselves and to gain new strength for activities and being together with others.